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  March 5, 2001

Cyberlaw Expert Studying How Law
Forms During Cultural Change

Every society, whether it's made up of dozens or millions, has rules and laws to govern its members' actions. But when a society exists solely online and has members from all over the globe, which rules reign?

"How do we think about legal issues in cyberspace? Does new technology require a new paradigm for thinking about legal issues?" asks Paul Schiff Berman, an associate professor of law. "Fundamentally, I'm addressing issues of how law forms and evolves."

Berman, who has quickly established himself as an expert in the burgeoning field of cyberlaw by writing many articles, opinion pieces and legal briefs, teaches two of the law school's cyberlaw courses.

Unlike many people who study Internet-related topics, Berman does not have a computer science background. A former clerk for U.S. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, he received an undergraduate degree in cultural anthropology and sees his cyberlaw research as an outgrowth of his interest in broad cultural changes.

Since its introduction, the Internet has already had a great influence, Berman says. Just as earlier researchers weren't able to predict the changes that would be brought about by the automobile and other technological inventions, we can't foretell the ultimate impact the Internet will have, he adds. However, Berman and other Internet law experts are exploring how law may change in response to these broader societal shifts.

As with the introduction of other new technologies, the Internet's advent was accompanied by a fear that it would destroy existing rights. In the case of the Internet, many people are afraid that it will allow users to make copies of legally protected materials, thereby ruining copyright law.

"People see the Internet as a giant copy machine that's going to destroy intellectual property as we know it," says Berman. "The fear is that the Internet will make it impossible to enforce existing legal regimes. That fear is in part simply a fear of change."

Such anxiety has been most noticeable during the recent outcry about Napster, an Internet site that allowed users to locate and download music files. The site's detractors claim that it infringes on the copyright held by recording companies, while its supporters insist that Napster does nothing wrong.

"I think sometimes when issues enter the public consciousness, as they have with online pornography or with Napster, that can motivate people to think seriously about the role of law," Berman says. "Sometimes that can foster an overreaction. On the other hand, a case like Napster has galvanized people to understand what's at stake when we overprotect, as well as when we under-protect intellectual property."

The attention that's focused on Napster and other Internet-related cases has led students to express a growing interest in cyberlaw. Since he arrived at the law school in fall 1998, Berman has taught most of the school's Internet law courses. Many law students grew up with the technology and have an interest in cyberlaw that's driven in part by the knowledge that law firms want young lawyers who have Internet expertise, he says. The cyberlaw courses are also popular with the school's strong contingent of international students.

"The University of Connecticut School of Law is one of the few schools that regularly offers at least two Internet-related courses," Berman says. "Moreover, Connecticut is one of the few that integrates the cyberlaw courses into the overall intellectual property program."

Berman is currently researching a law review article on the intersection of copyright, international conflict of laws, jurisdiction , and the Internet.

"Currently, every nation has its own copyright laws, and there have been attempts to harmonize copyright laws and develop internationa l rules for jurisdiction," he says. "The big question is: which nation's copyright law and which court's jurisdiction is involved if people believe a web posting violates their rights?"

In addition, Berman is working on a book-length project responding to critics who claim America is an overly litigious society. While the criticism is a common one, Berman thinks we derive tremendous value as a society from discussing social issues in a legal context - a belief that connects his work in this field and cyberlaw.

"In all of my work as a teacher and a scholar, I try to emphasize the positive role that legal discourse can play in developing principles for how we as a society will live together," Berman says. "I think legal education is about training students to see multiple points of view on issues and, therefore, legal education is really about training tolerant citizens in a diverse society."

Allison Thompson